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Is Prime Minister’s Question Time still an effective way to hold th UKe Government to account?
Prime Minister’s Questions is a weekly event, taking place on Wednesdays at midday in the House of Commons, in which Members of Parliament ask questions of the Prime Minister which he/she is obliged to answer over the course of approximately half an hour. Prior to 1997, this was instead two fifteen minute slots (Seaton and Winetrobe, 1999). The Leader of the Opposition is allocated six questions during this period. In the past, the Prime Minister has been able to transfer questions to relevant members of his/her Cabinet, and the Leader of the Opposition has foregone the opportunity to ask his/her allocated number of questions. Since the changes made under Tony Blair in 1997, the third-largest party (since then the Liberal Democrats) has been afforded the chance to ask two questions (Thomas, 2004: 5). The event has a long tradition in British politics and is considered a central element in the adversarial thrust of the parliamentary system and the House of Commons. It provides an opportunity for Members of Parliament to address questions and issues directly to the Prime Minister, and to have those issues answered and responded to (Gimson, 2012). As such, it is considered a cornerstone of the British political system. This paper will argue that it alone is not an effective means of holding the government to account, but that it forms an important constituent part in the wider adversarial democratic process of ensuring government accountability. It will also be noted that an increasing emphasis on point-scoring, machoism and unruly contentiousness is something which has detracted from the democratic effectiveness of Prime Minister’s Questions.
One of the central emphases of Prime Minister’s Questions is that the issues raised and questions put to the Prime Minister are ones which he/she does not know in advance. It is therefore seen as an opportunity for Members of Parliament to challenge the Prime Minister away from any prepared or scripted response. For this reason, Prime Minister’s Questions has been valued by the opposition and in some cases feared by the Prime Minister as it forces him or her to be very well briefed on the issues of the day, as well as to improvise and respond quickly and efficiently to unanticipated questions or issues which might be raised (Cowley, 2001: 820). However, it has been argued, both by politicians and by commentators, that the unruly nature of some Prime Minister’s Questions has meant that, rather than being an important part of the democratic process and a chance to hold the government to account, it has become something of a spectacle and an uncivilised shouting match.
This problem has indeed been raised by the current Speaker of the House, John Bercow, who has identified the ‘histrionics and cacophony of noise’ associated with the event (Mason and Edgington, 2014, n.p.). Bercow suggested in the same interview that female Members of Parliament in particular are driven to not attend Prime Minister’s Questions because of the machoism and unruliness of the behaviour in the House (Mason and Edgington, 2014). To the extent that the nature of the event discourages certain Members of Parliament from attending suggests that it is less than ideally effective as a democratic process. If not all Members wish to attend, not all the potential questions and issues which could or should be raised in Prime Minister’s Questions are going to be addressed. In such circumstances, it is possible that the emphasis is more on presentation and cheap point-scoring than on actual political processes and accountability, and that the ability of the Prime Minister to make jokes, cutting ripostes and other ‘style over substance’ elements in the debating process has taken centre stage. Given the relatively short duration of the event – half an hour per week – the possibility for unruly behaviour and disruption to undermine the process and ensure that little is actually said or achieved in the questioning session is all the greater (Murphy, 2014). Bates et al. (2014: 243) addressed in their research of Prime Minister’s Questions from Margaret Thatcher through to David Cameron, the question of whether or not the event has ‘become increasingly a focal point for shallow political point scoring rather than serious prime ministerial scrutiny’. They found some worrying evidence of Prime Minister’s Questions as both ‘rowdier and increasingly dominated by the main party leaders’ with Prime Ministers ‘increasingly expected to be able to respond to a wider range of questions’, female MPs ‘as likely to ask helpful questions but less likely to ask unanswerable questions than male counterparts’ and Members of Parliament being ‘less likely to ask helpful questions and more likely to ask unanswerable questions the longer their parliamentary tenure.’ These all suggest a less than ideal process of holding the government to account.
Thus it is necessary to distinguish between adversarial discourse which serves a political democratic process in holding the government to account on the one hand, and confrontational or aggressive behaviour which is simply point-scoring and face-saving on the other. Bull and Wells (2011: n.p.), in their study of ‘adversarial discourse’ in Prime Minister’s Questions, analysed the concept of ‘face-threatening acts’, and identified ‘six distinctive ways in which FTAs are performed by the leader of the opposition in questions and five distinctive ways in which the PM may counter FTAs in replies were identified.’ They concluded that ‘face aggravation in PMQs is not just an acceptable form of parliamentary discourse, it is both sanctioned and rewarded, a means whereby MPs may enhance their own status through aggressive facework.’ These face-threatening acts were ones which, without constituting non-parliamentary language (i.e. language which is deemed by the Speaker of the House to be directly insulting towards another Member of Parliament), nevertheless aimed at embarrassing or undermining the person at whom they were directed. This so-called ‘aggressive facework’ may serve a political purpose, and may constitute a challenge to the government and its representatives, but it is one which is based more on personality than politics, and one which therefore serves more of an interpersonal role within the House than it does a wider political role in ensuring democratic accountability.
Mohammed (2008: 380) characterises Prime Minister’s Questions in terms of institutional conventions, arguing that it has a structured purpose and format which achieves its ends by being institutionally defined. In other words, such a format for adversarial exchange, where there are clear rules and conventions of behaviour, is one which makes it effective and efficient in achieving its goals i.e. holding the government to account. Mohammed (2008: 380) highlights the ‘initial situation’ of Prime Minister’s Questions as being ‘a mixed difference of opinion concerning a proposition evaluating the performance of the government.’ This suggests that although the topical questions put to the Prime Minister may not be critical or aggressive in their nature, that what is presupposed in the questioning is nevertheless a process of accountability. The Prime Minister is recognised as the centre of the process, and he/she is called upon as ‘the main protagonist of the positive standpoint, since he is expected to always defend his government (sic)’ (Mohammed, 2008: 380). The emphasis on a single individual as representing the government and addressing the issues which are raised, and the executive manner of the role within the eponymous questions session, means that Prime Minister’s Questions does have a recognisable symbolic value as a means of holding the government to account.
As well as being well-codified and formalised, Prime Minister’s Questions is valued as a means of holding the government to account in terms of its importance (Lovenduski, 2012). This is reflected in the fact that Members of Parliament are present at Prime Minister’s Questions to a degree which far exceeds their presence during normal proceedings in the House of Commons. Salmond (2014: 321) has argued in favour of Prime Minister’s Questions as a democratic tool of accountability on these grounds, noting that the data demonstrates how ‘these open QTs are associated with higher levels of political knowledge, partisanship, and turnout.’ In that they attract a large number of parliamentarians, and therefore a wider gambit of democratic representation, they are a means of ensuring that the largest possible proportion of the electorate is represented during the session. Moreover, these members of the electorate are able to effectively have their issues put directly to the most important politician in the country. This was made explicitly evident recently by Jeremy Corbyn, whose first Prime Minister’s Questions session as newly-elected Leader of the Opposition involved him addressing questions to David Cameron directly from those members of the electorate who had put them to him in emails and letters. He went so far as to directly name these individuals and thereby to literally employ Prime Minister’s Questions as a platform in which members of the electorate could directly address their Prime Minister (BBC News, 2015).
In the same session, ‘Labour’s new leader said he wanted the weekly sessions to be less “theatrical” and Mr Cameron agreed there should be more focus on “substantial issues”‘ (BBC News, 2015). This returns to the issue raised earlier of the degree to which style and point-scoring at the personal level has taken precedent over substance and addressing issues at the political level. Indeed, this call for not only Prime Minister’s Questions but the political process more generally to become more substantial and less personality-oriented is one which has dominated the discourse of the last decade or so. Indeed, David Cameron promised when he was elected Leader of the Opposition to end “Punch and Judy” politics, and responded to Corbyn by saying that ‘no one would be more delighted than me’ if Prime Minister’s Questions were made into more of a ‘genuine exercise in asking questions and answering questions’ (BBC News, 2015). As such, there is a continued recognition of the fact that political processes have to negotiate between personal and political, style and substance, in their practices. However, to the extent that both Corbyn and Cameron recognise this problem, and claim to be willing to change it, there is evidence that Prime Minister’s Questions, if it has been less than ideal as a means of holding the government to account in the past, is likely to become more so in the future.
To conclude, therefore, it can be argued that there are strengths and weaknesses to Prime Minister’s Questions as a tool in ensuring government accountability to the electorate. Among the strengths, this essay has identified three key elements. Firstly, it is a well-regulated, formal system with recognised rules and proceedings. This means that this regular event runs efficiently and can allow for a number of important questions to be asked directly to the most important politician in the land and direct representative of the government. Secondly, the fact that the Prime Minister’s responses are not fully prepared in advance means that the session has an impromptu and spontaneous element which allows for potentially greater accountability. Thirdly, the session is well-attended by parliamentarians and well-recognised by people who follow politics (with its being broadcast on BBC2), and therefore it is also a high profile opportunity to raise issues and find the government accountable. However, whilst these benefits obtain, it is also notable that Prime Minister’s Questions can be less than ideal as a means of holding the government to account. Causes of this include the relatively short length of the sessions, their comparative infrequency being held only once a week and, as identified above, the fact that cheap point-scoring and what has been identified in the literature as ‘aggressive facework’ (Bull and Wells, 2011) constitute one of the central features of the questioning process. As such, there is the real possibility of what would otherwise be an effective means of holding the government to account descending into a competitive, mud-slinging match where the emphasis is on achieving personal goals rather than political ones. If the evidence of recent Prime Minister’s Questions is reliable, it can be noted in closing, there is a suggestion that this emphasis is being decreased, and that Prime Minister’s Questions may in the future become increasingly like the effective means of holding the government accountable that it has the potential to be.
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BBC News. 2015. Jeremy Corbyn asks David Cameron ‘questions from public’. BBC News 16th September 2015. Available online [accessed 19th October 2015] at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-34264683
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Mason, C. and Edgington, T. (2014). ‘Female MPs shunning PMQs, says John Bercow.’ BBC News. Available online [accessed 19th October 2015] at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-27062577.
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